Tap Water ROI: It’s About the Bottles

Yesterday I looked at the impact declining tap water use may have on a municipality. In a nutshell, if fewer people use tap water, the system may become more difficult to support, which may lead to lower quality drinking water for those who rely on taps over bottled water (hundreds of times more expensive). Because of this, investing in promoting tap water may be money well spent. But there may be bigger and more easily quantified benefits to increasing tap water adoption rates, such as reducing the volume of plastic bottles in a municipalities’ waste stream.

In 2007, the StarTribune included a take from the city on why they’re investing in marketing the city’s tap water:

Until bottled water sales erupted, public officials never imagined they would have to promote plain, old tap water with their own PR campaigns, said Jeremy Hanson, spokesman for Mayor R.T. Rybak. This year, the city of Minneapolis has about $200,000 in its budget to promote city water.

Interestingly, there are more reasons to encourage drinking tap water than boosting the volume of water flowing through the city’s infrastructure. The article also breaks down the lessened impact of the city’s waste stream:

One selling point from the city’s website: A resident can refill a bottle 2,850 times with Minneapolis water to equal the price of a single 79-cent bottle of store-bought water. The campaign to promote tap water aims to get residents and businesses to reduce waste. Even though many people recycle the plastic or glass bottles, the mission is to prevent the waste in the first place, whether it’s recycled or not, said Susan Hubbard, CEO of Eureka Recycling in Minneapolis.

Put another way, when a Minneapolis taxpayer buys a bottle of water, we all end up paying to get rid of it. So we all benefit if we take advantage of tap water over bottled.

Taxpayer Costs of Plastic Bottles

The Joint Service Pollution Prevention Opportunity Handbook has a breakdown of the costs of dealing with plastic bottles entering the waste stream. Whether recycled or dumped into landfills, every bottle purchased creates a tax burden for tax payers.

Costs of Disposing of Plastic

Here are the assumptions in those numbers:

* Medium scale plastic container collection program: 2 tons/month
* Purchase of 40 curbside recycling containers: $15/container
* Purchase of one large collection bin: $500
* Labor for collection/separation of plastic containers: 4 hrs/week
* Landfill fee: $25/ton
* Labor rate: $30/hour
* Transportation cost to recycle center or landfill: $150/month
* Recycled plastic price: $200/ton

According to North Carolina’s recycling website, RE3.org, every 38,069 20oz bottles create one ton of waste. Nationwide (as of 2007) only 1/4 of plastic bottles are recycled (I’ve seen stats from 10-25%. It’s higher than that range in states with deposits), so the cost tends toward the high side of the waste stream.

Minneapolis’ Tax Burden for Non-Tap Water

Using assumptions for costs of recycling vs. landfills and Minneapolis’ bottled water use based on national averages, I came up with the following calculation of what the City of Minneapolis pays annually to dispose of plastic bottles:

A lot of assumptions went into this. If you have better data I can use, let me know. One big potential variable here is that Minneapolis burns its trash next to the new Twins stadium so adjustments may need to be made to account for that. For now, working off those calculations, what can we learn from this?

1. If Minneapolis’ investment in a tap water PR campaign increased tap water use over bottled by 5% annually, the city would see a positive return on its investment in under three years, based solely on the waste stream impacts.

2. Even a 1% would see a positive ROI in around 10 years, based solely on the waste stream impacts.

3. The city can provide a person with 30 bottles worth of water via tap for the same cost as throwing away one plastic bottle.

This is longer-term thinking than what I expect to see from people like Ben Golnik, who appear to be in more of a reactionary campaign mode. He’s probably perfectly capable of understanding this, but the nature of his position working for Marty Seifert seems to be clouding his judgment. Going back to the post that set off Golnik in the first place, I posed the following questions:

1. Property Taxes: I’m a Minneapolis resident and am fine with the services provided to me for my property taxes. What’s your definition of massive? How would you have preferred to see the budget balanced?

2. Police Cuts: The budget was balanced and tough decisions were made along the way. What would you have liked to see cut instead that would have achieved the same results?

3. Artistic drinking fountains: addressed here.

4. Tap Water: Seriously?

5. Vegetative roofs: How much would have been saved long term had this not been done? Are we talking about serious money, or are you grasping at straws?

Without answers to the above questions, how do you expect your statements to be taken seriously?

Policy issues like this are worth debating. If a consultant to Marty Seifert’s campaign makes attacks on issues like this, but refuses back up their statements when questioned, I have to question whether Seifert team plans to continue using misinformation and ridiculous framing of arguments rather than presenting a vision for a better Minnesota.

There is a big difference between policy and talking points. Does Marty Seifert and his campaign team know the difference?

4 thoughts on “Tap Water ROI: It’s About the Bottles”

  1. I must say I was pretty skeptical about spending 200,000 to promote tap water, though you do make some great arguments and points. It does make sense that the less tap water we use, the less money the city would have to pay for the upkeep of that service. My only question then would be, did the city use a local ad firm? Did they invest that 200,000 back into local businesses, creating/keeping local jobs?

    Thanks for taking the time to do the research and to take a sound bite and show the facts.

  2. I’m coming off a period where I chose to tone down my political rhetoric, so I’m glad to see you presenting clarifying political discussion–here with tap water ‘spending’ and earlier postings shining a light on what young republicans do when they leave college to grow up, which seems to be bringing their frat house learning to the wider political arena with their O’Keefe/Basel antics and Hellier/Lyk sophomoric logic.

    But while that is the sad state of the politics, and things are little better with traveling T-Paw the absentee governor and our state legislators, who refuse to recognize neither of their idealogies apply to the current world and neither will be adult enough to talk to the voters like we are adults. And all this lack of leadership and vision is getting us nowhere.

    Add to that the complete breakdown of our so-called business community, who appear to have sold out to the highest bidder and moved out of state, leaving us with pretenders like Petters and Hecker as the most recognizable business names.

    Where are our leaders? Name one business or political person who shows vision, leadership, and has some ideas for clean jobs and ethical policies we can believe in for Minnesotans?

  3. “It does make sense that the less tap water we use, the less money the city would have to pay for the upkeep of that service. ”

    Drinking water is a tiny percent of tap water. And disposing of water bottles is a big cost.

    Genuinely undrinkable (contaminated) tap water is also dangerous for cooking, bathing, brushing teeth, and sometimes even laundry and watering lawns.

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